Verses 14 through 16 in Matthew 5 follow Jesus’ proclamation of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden,” it begins. “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
A beacon can be both a guide and a warning to those whose ships might otherwise crash against the shores. The “city on a hill” is one-part aspiration and one-part outright myth: American ideals could and should be a global beacon of the value of a diverse and open society. In practice, particularly of late, it has also spotlighted the damage that can be done by a superpower which exports racism and violence and simultaneously inflicts that on immigrants and foreign students who arrive at its borders.
One of the most recent examples was the Trump administration’s Monday directive to cancel the student visas of foreign nationals enrolled at colleges and universities that are holding all of their classes online this upcoming autumn. Either transfer quickly to an institution teaching students live and in person, as Trump has demanded, or goodbye. Harvard and MIT have sued in federal court to block the move, but the initiative will be felt at universities of all levels. At first brush, Trump’s attack on foreign students may seem like his typical mix of xenophobia and cruelty, but there’s a new, disturbing element to this amid the pandemic: Trump, alarmingly, is treating public safety measures as a political affront.
This collegiate visa ban adds to Trump’s fragile fantasy of American calm. As he falsely accuses Democrats of wanting schools closed for “political reasons,” Trump sees an illusion of normalcy as the key to his victory in November. With a coronavirus crisis that has now killed more than 130,000 people inside U.S. borders, there is no way to construct that illusion that other than through obfuscation.
What is more normal or expected, after all, than students going back to school in the fall? And what parent doesn’t want to see her or his kid get an education? It’s not typically a partisan debate. But Trump has made it one, because parents value their children’s safety above all else — to say nothing of the health and welfare of the teachers and staff around them as this pandemic continues. The desperation to avoid this truth is leading Trump to propose to make the problem worse: making not-entirely empty threats to defund public schools who don’t comply with his demand to have full in-person instruction. More than 90 percent of public school budgets nationwide are outside of Trump’s reach, but he can cancel sorely needed pandemic funding that pays for teachers as well as measures to comply with the very CDC standards Trump seeks to thwart. (Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director, told ABC’s Good Morning America Thursday that no changes would be made to the agency’s guidance, but that it will provide additional reference documents.)
It may feel somewhat odd to see the Trump administration — which had left the decisions about school closings to the states — now appearing to take charge. All Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seemed to care about before this recent push to re-open schools was exploiting the pandemic to further her agenda against public education, diverting necessary public-school relief funds to private schools. All of a sudden, she’s throwing caution to the wind, repeating an earlier line of hers on Fox News Thursday morning: “It’s not a matter of if, it’s just a matter of how.” She insisted, though, that the White House seemed to have the “how” figured out, and lashed out at those who might dare question them: “There is a tendency on the part of some to be fearful of taking that next step toward where we need to go to get schools to reopen,” DeVos said. “There are no excuses for sowing fear and for making excuses when there are clearly safe ways to do things and we can make those decisions, take those steps forward to getting schools fully open, fully operational and serve the families that we’ve made the promise to.”
So, where is the plan? Undoubtedly, I maintain my ideological differences with this kakistocracy, assembled as if for the sole purpose of promoting white patriarchy and plutocracy — not altogether separate goals. I would, however, welcome even the most minimal effort from the laziest government that this nation has suffered under in modern times, particularly at a time when the president’s own promotion of irresponsibility and recklessness has exacerbated the impact of a disease that continues to discriminate.
The country and several states are regularly setting new daily records — more than 59,000 total nationwide on Wednesday — for reported coronavirus diagnoses. Testing delays continue unabated. At least five states also reached their own highs that day. The president’s own Tulsa rally on Juneteenth weekend, where attendees were told they didn’t need to wear masks and campaign officials removed seat markers provided to establish social distance, is now regarded as a “likely” source of a surge in local cases. Did I mention that we now know that the coronavirus can actually linger in the air indoors, as the World Health Organization confirmed on Thursday? While some governors who previously backed premature “reopenings” are now expressing regret and instituting overdue public-safety measures, Trump and his administration have grown only more recalcitrant. He has become Kevin Bacon’s Animal House ROTC soldier screaming defiantly at the film’s end, “All is well!” as the entire town descends into chaos.
Add to this what The New York Times released in its findings last weekend after a successful lawsuit against the CDC: Latino and black Americans have been three times as likely to contract COVID-19 as their white neighbors, and nearly twice as likely to die from it. Still, as we focus upon the president’s bigoted barbs towards his black athlete target-of-the-week, or another meaningless defense of a Confederate flag that may finally be dying, we once again miss the implications of moves like Trump’s visa ban and his overall actions to worsen this coronavirus catastrophe. With the pandemic doing its deadly work, this is less the banality of evil than a different kind of violence, articulated through other means than a gun or a nightstick.
It is worth recognizing that Sweden, whose laissez-faire approach to the coronavirus made it a worldwide cautionary tale, did not find that keeping schools was a significant contributor to its problems. But a decision for the 56.6 million public school students in the U.S., to say nothing of the millions attending colleges, universities, and trade schools, should be made based upon science — not Trump saying, as he did in a tweet, that nations like Sweden had schools open, so why not us?
Well, other nations did their homework. They have the virus largely at a manageable level. Thanks to Trump and the Republicans who followed him in his recklessness, we do not.
Despite clear evidence that the new surge in cases is directly attributable to their irresponsible decisions to open states too early and discourage the use of personal protective equipment, Trump and his administration continue to pressure CDC experts to make the president look better and submit to his will. By treating public-safety measures as partisan and attacking those who promote them, Trump hasn’t merely made government agencies like the CDC appear like political enemies. He is in opposition to us, his constituents. Our efforts to survive are an affront to him.
This disregard for the safety of young people is hardly unique in our politics, for we see this every time there is a school shooting. The nation once again is awakened to the lunacy of owning and using firearms at the level at which we do, and wondering how could such a thing happen — especially after all those thoughts and prayers following the last massacre. Reliance upon God’s plan is not a legislative strategy, yet that is how Trump and his party have operated on that issue, unfairly smearing gun-control measures as unconstitutional. with regards to the coronavirus. Congress just left town for two weeks without any effort on the GOP side to come up with a new and needed coronavirus relief package. Instead: schools must open! Why? Because!
The natural consequence of kids going back, also, is parents being freed up to return to work. Those who can stop working at home and go back to the office. (I expect that demand some time soon from a president whose corporation has stayed profitable thanks to his office towers.) But even more of those in service industries, predominantly people of color, would be available during the day. Well, that is if they are still employed, and if they aren’t evicted in the coming months once their enhanced unemployment expires at the end of this month, and the rent freezes eventually end. The Washington Post reported earlier this week that of the 110 million Americans living in rental households, one-fifth of them are at risk of eviction by the end of September. Black and Latino renters are expected to be hardest hit, per the analysis by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a Colorado-based community group. And how many of those are these visiting or immigrant students who are now stressed about deportation, thanks to their colleges going online-only? What is the administration’s plan to handle a sudden surge in homelessness? Another $1,200 stipend?
Americans may not recognize a burgeoning eviction crisis as racism, however, if no one yells the word “nigger” or the president doesn’t exhibit similarly obvious bigotry. Racism can be most harmful when it is insidious, or even committed merely as a means to an unrelated end. Yes, this xenophobic policy is deliberately injurious — but is truly characterized best by its apathy for the fates of who it affects in the service of another, far more important goal: the maintenance of power. Pressuring schools to reopen — from the smallest public-school kindergarten up through America’s colleges and universities — is only a step. Insulting China and all the other nations, even if it stops them from exporting their most talented young people to America? When you are a white-nationalist president, that’s just a bonus.
Moves like this visa ban use bigotry to further soil whatever good reputation this nation had. Perhaps it can be rebuilt over considerable time, but it’s gone. If America ever truly was a nation that invited the tired, poor, and huddled masses to share in and keep its experiment running, it appears those days are over. That was true well before Trump let pestilence run amuck and other nations started banning us. Even Mexico’s border towns are trying to stop Americans from entering for fear that they may carry the potentially fatal disease. Trump may get his wall gifted from our southern neighbors after all, and we’ll need to build a “city on a hill” just to see over it.